He enjoyed poker, he made money at it, but to be a pro player these days you need to move to the soulless pit that is Vegas, and that town and Vaughn, who has as much soul as any white boy I know, just weren’t a good fit. Regardless, here is his story of what it’s like to be a poker player and how he got into it.
JGT: Tell me how you first got into poker.
Vaughn: Well I was always a bit of a gambler. I used to sneak into the Taj to play blackjack when I was 16-20 years old. Not often, once or twice a year.
JGT: Were you pretty good at it, right off the bat?
Vaughn: Yeah. I was a chess prodigy as a kid. Top 5 in the country age 9 and under, with two therapists for parents. I was kind of born and bred to play poker
JGT: I didn’t know that you were a chess prodigy.
Vaughn: I peaked at age 8. But that movie Searching for Bobby Fisher? I used to play with that kid a lot.
JGT: Ok, so when did you make the jump to cards?
Vaughn: Age 25, working as an assistant in Hollywood. Flew home to Philly for a one week vacation, had a changeover in Las Vegas.
JGT: An assistant what?
Vaughn: I was the assistant to the head writer/executive producer of an ill-fated CBS sitcom.
JGT: Called what?
Vaughn: Ladies Man. Helluva cast but the show never got off the ground. Alfred Molina, Betty White. But it was working 90hrs a week on the Titanic. Anyway, my flight was late out of LA and missed the Vegas to PHL flight. It was 11pm and next flight was 7am. Being a bit of a latent degenerate, I put my bag in a locker and took a cab to the Bellagio. I had 6 hours to kill and knew I couldn’t spend it playing blackjack.
Rounders had recently come out. I wandered over to the poker room, played $1-$5 spread limit stud all night. Finished up $12 and thought it was the coolest f***ing thing. On the way to my flight I went into the gift shop and bought the first book I saw on poker strategy. The book mentioned poker was legal at several card rooms in L.A., including the Hollywood Park Racetrack which was maybe 15 minutes from the Culver City lot where we shot the show. I didn’t go during weeks when we were shooting, but the non-shooting weeks I went a couple times a week and I was a better than breakeven player almost right away.
JGT: Had you found a passion or just a hobby?
Vaughn: Both. Clearly some part of me that been been long dormant just got engaged right away. I mean, is there any way of keeping score more authentic than stacking piles of money? At the time, however, I had pretty much slaved away 3 years of my life to get myself into the position where I might get a job writing for a sitcom, and I was finally next in line.
Vaughn: I was all about the TV writing but it never really came together. There were only about 10 of those jobs given to new writers a year, maybe five. This was before there was a ton of scripted programming on cable, and ABC was running Who Wants to be a Millionaire five nights a week. Survivor had just debuted.
Vaughn worked hard on a couple of promising pilots, but they never got off the ground. Frustrated, he decided to make a run at Poker.
Vaughn: I made good money for 4-5 months and then couldn’t win a hand for six weeks and I was broke. Thought I was very unlucky, though in retrospect I was probably lucky to last that long. Got a temp job at a bind trading firm (in LA) and kept playing on the side. That was fun–work started at 5 a.m. when the market opened in NYC. I would play all night, drive to work at 4:30 a.m., shave in the men’s room, work til 2pm, crash, then wake up, eat dinner, and go play cards.
JGT: At what point did your winnings start getting bigger than your losses?
Vaughn: I always won more than I lost. I just had no concept of bankroll or money management. I spent way too much of my winnings, ate sushi and went on vacation.
JGT: Shit, I still do that now. What was your greatest success as a poker player?
Vaughn: The run I made at the 2006 WSOP Main Event. Still pretty much the biggest tournament ever played and I got pretty far. On day 3 I was sitting next to the reigning world champion and pretty much kicked his ass up and down in front of the ESPN cameras. That week was crazy. It started with almost 9000 players. First place was 12 million.
JGT: What place did you finish and how much did you win?
Vaughn: I finished 264th and won 40k. So I moved back to Philly in 2006, mostly because I was playing online all the time.
JGT: But then that became illegal, right?
Vaughn: Yep. I always had awesome timing. So I spent a couple years living in Center City and riding the bus down to AC several days a week. Working part time shitty jobs here and there as needed. But I was never getting anywhere so I decided to finally get all in and move to Vegas. Which was fun and moderately successful, though ultimately I did not get rich.
JGT: What’s a typical day like for a pro poker player in Vegas?
Vaughn: Wake up around 10. Do a few errands. Take a nap from 1-3. Wake up, go to gym. Grab a bite and sit down to play sometime between 4pm and 8pm. Put in 4-6 hours, go get Pho or Korean BBQ. Go to sleep around 5 a.m.
Vaughn: It’s a weird profession in that the best does not equal most successful. Many of the best players in the world are broke. Good poker players are smarter than average people but often not very formally educated. More savvy operators, shrew and people-smart. There has always been a quadrant of super educated types in the game. Cal Tech, MIT guys. But a whole lot more folks who got their education outside of schools. On the whole, they are not my favorite people and it’s the main reason I am getting away from it. I made very few good friends in 10 years of playing cards. Those that I did make were often dealers and floor personnel.
JGT: So what’s the best thing about being a pro poker player?
Vaughn: Freedom. Being there for my friends and family when they need me, but setting your own hours in general.
JGT: And what’s the worst part?
Vaughn: Stress. Never knowing how much money you will be making that week/month/year. And spending too much time around shitty people on their worst behavior.
JGT: What advice would you have for a young person thinking about making it their profession?
Vaughn: Do it because you love to play, not because its easier than working. Because it isn’t. And recognize from the start that being good at poker is the 4th or 5th most important factor in whether or not you are successful.
JGT: Being good at psychology is more important that being good at cards, I take it?
Vaughn: Sort of. The psychology counts as part of being good at cards. Emotional self-awareness. Emotional self-control. Careful money management. Disciplined game and table selection. All more important than being good. Being good is the price of admission for trying.
JGT: What kind of table are you trying to get when you walk into a casino?
Vaughn: Depends on how you play. Wilder, crazy tables will be more profitable, but also higher variance. For me personally, I found the best table had one really aggressive maniac and a bunch of passive players. Some playing a lot of hands like the maniac, some tight.
JGT: But can you tell that by looking at people, or do watch a couple of hands at the table first?
Vaughn: Most poker players develop an insane ability to stereotype their opponents with a lot of accuracy based on very little information. I used to say I could tell how long everybody at the table had been playing cards by watching ten hands.
It can really fuck you up when you are wrong though. We have so much confidence in our snap judgements, it can be hard for us to adjust our reads on the rare occasions we are wrong.
JGT: I can tell when I walk into a bar exactly which a$$hole is going to shout out answers.
Vaughn: Yep. Not very different.
JGT: Think you’re done with poker?
Vaughn: I very much want to be done with poker for a living. I can’t wait to get back to playing it as a profitable hobby.
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